Kyle Johnson.jpg

Air Force Falcons linebacker Kyle Johnson (40), center, celebrates against the Navy Midshipmen at Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy last year, in Colorado Springs. Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

As All-Mountain West ballots roll in this weekend, expect to see plenty of votes for Air Force’s Mosese Fifita, Scott Hattok, Zane Lewis, Geraud Sanders and Connor Vikupitz.

It’s doubtful that could have been said for any of those players a year ago, before a season that saw them improve from regular players to standouts worthy of postseason accolades.

Also within that senior class, players like Ben Waters, Grant Theil and Christopher Mitchell, who had played sparingly through their first three years, became indispensable starters.

Where would the Falcons’ season be without the contributions from Mike Schmidt and Jake Koehnke, who each came off the bench to earn Mountain West player of the week honors for game-changing performances at Hawaii and Colorado State?

Then there’s Taven Birdow, Jeremy Fejedelem, Kyle Johnson, Garrett Kauppila, Jake Koehnke and Isaiah Sanders, who had long ago established their worth for the program and continued to contribute through this season.

It’s a deep senior class that Air Force will honor in the home finale at noon Saturday against Wyoming, but perhaps what stands out the most is the amount of improvement the individuals within that class made over their final season, and how that elevated the team that is 9-2, 6-1 Mountain West with the regular-season finale and a bowl game remaining.

It started with a team meeting last November, just after the conclusion of a second consecutive 5-7 season, when the seniors put their goals on paper.

“I think that set us up for success,” Hattok said. “After November we bought in.”

Of course, saying a group is going to change things and actually changing things are very much different things.

“We decided we weren’t going to follow what anybody else did,” Geraud Sanders said. “We looked at that class of 2017 with (Weston) Steelhammer and (Jalen) Robinette. Those were really good dudesl; we’re going to take what we did and add our own spin on it and just be ourselves. We set our own goals and didn’t try to mimic any class that came before us, because they’re not the same. We’re different players, different talent, everything. Once we figured that out and set our own path, the sky was the limit.”

Linebacker Kyle Johnson didn’t see anything drastically different, just a “consecutive leveling up every day,” and a team that positioned itself to be on the receiving end of some lucky bounces.

“Luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” Johnson said. “We’ve been putting in so much behind the scenes, and when it’s presented itself we’ve been ready.”

That presented itself this season in the form of a blocked PAT at Colorado that helped force overtime and allow the Falcons to win. Also in a goal-line stand that preserved a 17-13 victory over Army. There was also a game-sealing 99-yard interception return from Lewis at Colorado State.

The rest of the wins came by double digits, with any game-changing plays (like fourth-down stops against San Jose State) occurring early in the game. This was a departure from the past two years, when the team was seemingly always stuck in close contests and lost seven games by less than 10 points.

“People just bought into the brotherhood,” Fifita said. “Not saying it wasn’t like this last year, but this year I think a lot of people were motivated in practice. A lot of people have stepped up and led.”

Coach Troy Calhoun pointed to the game experience this group had leading into the season as a big element to its improvement.

“I just think how much they put into football,” he said. “I think there are years you have guys who like football. I think these guys love to work and love to practice when it comes to football, and that does help when it comes to improvement.”

Most outside observers would have predicted the current junior class, not this one, would have been the deep class leaving a program-changing legacy. That group, which features standouts like Donald Hammond III, Kade Remsberg, Milton (Tre’) Bugg III, Jordan Jackson, Lakota Wills, Nolan Laufenberg, Parker Ferguson and Demonte Meeks, among others, may still do that, but these seniors got there first.

“It’s nice for the seniors to go out with a good taste in their mouth,” said Meeks, the leading tackler for a team that has won six in a row. “That’s what I’m most happy about. Also, the lower classmen like the freshmen and sophomores who haven’t played yet, to understand that we’re working toward something and we’re trying to establish this culture. That’s what I love.”

So, what legacy will these seniors leave? “Depends,” Johnson said. “Depends on the next two games. I think regardless, we will have improved on last year, but we did that a while ago.

“We’ve still got three of our five goals to play for.”

Of those goals that were written down, two are no longer attainable — winning the Mountain West and the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. But the others — a Top 25 ranking, 10 wins and a bowl game victory — are still up for grabs.

“Just knowing that we have completely turned our season around from what we’ve had to what we have now,” Geraud Sanders said, “it’s something we can say, ‘We did that.’”

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